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Beneath a clear blue Fall afternoon, I was lying face down on the parkway outside city hall. On top of me, cursing and screaming they’ll never take us alive, was Marshbaum. The last thing I had remembered before being hit with a flying tackle was looking up. So, I looked up again.
"Stay down!" Marshbaum barked.
"Snipers?" I fearfully asked. When you’re a political satirist, you never know who you may have offended.
"Blimp," whispered Marshbaum ominously.
"The Goodyear blimp is after me? It’s as docile as the Washington press corps."
"That’s what they want you to believe. Didn’t you ever wonder what they really do over all those football games? They’re gathering intelligence."
"What can they learn at a football game?"
"Enough to know that 50,000 drunks wearing hog noses to cheer for the Redskins aren’t going to be able to provide much resistance to an all-out invasion."
"Goodyear is going to invade the FedEx Field?"
"Goodyear is on our side," he said. The problem is the other blimps. The Fugi blimp is probably in luke-warm pursuit right now."
"We’re going to war with a company that makes film?"
"A Japanese company," said Marshbaum smugly. "When we defeated the Germans and had the only combat blimps, we had air superiority. The Japanese take our technology, improve it, and build their own blimp. Probably have a dozen quality work circles right now just on how to better vulcanize rubber. It’s a worldwide conspiracy, Even the Scots are involved."
"Yeah, the last thing an enemy wants to see is a tartan-design blimp floating into battle, staffed by Highlanders leaning out the windows, with their bagpipes blaring "Comin’ Through the Rye."
"McDonald’s," said a smirking Marshbaum. "The Scots achieved parity with Japan when they convinced us that two-ounce McGreaseburgers were healthier than tofu. Blimps are the future of warfare."
During World War I, blimps had been used as scouts. French and German blimps passed each other, each crew waving politely at the enemy. But then someone, probably loaded on dark beer or burgundy, threw an incendiary device at the other blimp, and soon blimps were in the war. Except for some coastal surveillance for subs during World War II and an occasional rescue operation, blimps weren’t the attack craft military leaders once envisioned, mostly because even a blind squirrel with a nut could hit something that large and that slow. The last of the 140 Navy blimps was retired in 1962. But this was 2003. I demanded evidence that the government was going retro-air.
Marshbaum looked around, saw that no one was watching us, then took a crumpled news article from his back pocket. "See!" he said, thrusting it at me. According to the article, the Navy has begun testing a blimp, first in Virginia, now in San Diego, as surveillance in the war against terror. Floating at 40 miles per hour, about 2,000 feet above the earth, the white airships would be used to locate enemy divers, submerged mines and, maybe, drug smugglers, illegal immigrants crossing America’s borders, and seedy lawyers having sex with the spouses of jailed clients. The Navy projects three 200-foot helium-filled airships, each at a cost of about $12 million, for every major American city.
But that’s not all the Navy plans. In addition to the four-person low-level surveillance blimps, it’s allocating about $40 million for a remote-controlled prototype that can cruise at 65,000 feet. This 500-foot long space carrier will have a volume of more than five million cubic feet of helium, about 20 times that of current blimps.
It will take a lot of helium to float these airships. We need to look no further than the Bush Dome Reservoir near Amarillo, Texas. Beneath its 20 square miles, the government has stockpiled about 30 billion cubic feet of helium, which it has been selling to private enterprise.
"The conspiracy isn’t even hidden," said Marshbaum. "After the government sells helium to private industry, it then buys blimps from private companies with White House ties. Then since blimps need helium, the government buys it from private sources." The only thing to be determined, said Marshbaum, "is how much profit Halliburton will receive."
"It’s business as usual in the Bush White House," I said. "It’d be a real stretch for them to claim that there was an imminent threat to national security from blimps. It’s not as if Fugi possessed weapons of mass destruction." But, at that moment, chugging along at sub-snail speed, floated the sinister Shamu killer whale blimp, apparently on a search-and-destroy mission to take over the nation’s football fields and amusement parks.
"It’s only the beginning," said Marshbaum. "Only the beginning."
( WALT BRASCH, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University, says he sees a lot of hot air on campus, but has yet to see a blimp hover over the college’s football field. His latest book is "Sex and the Single Beer Can: Probing the Media and American Culture." You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)